Pros: Some good info on how to survive in the wilderness of the Florida Everglade swamp.
Cons: Credibility is suspect. Book subject not as advertised.
James P. McMullen's Cry of the Panther: Quest of a Species
This thickish paperback sporting a handsome close up shot of a female panther on its cover lured me from the library book sale stand and I thought that I had made a steal in scoring another good non-fiction book about wild animal (you know, the sort you get from Joy Adamson or Mark and Delia Owens, lay-friendly naturalists' book about wild animals and their experience living among them) for only a dollar. Well, was I ever wrong...
This book is nothing like what its cover, title and backcover 'endorsements' would lead you to believe that it is. Rather than being another absorbing book that allows you a glimpse of the wild while learning about a panther, it is actually a self-repeating narration of James McMullen's (psychologically disturbing) stalking of a wild panther in the Florida Everglade. The man came back from the Vietnam war with post-traumatic stress disorder and such a vivid hatred for human (or perhaps really for himself) that he set out on this stalking spree of a panther in his trans-species dream of becoming a big cat himself.
I must say that, even though I don't know McMullen, from what he has written in this book, I wouldn't want the man anywhere near anyone I care for. The only thing he really cares about is his need to pretend to be a panther in order to escape from himself and humanhood. This is a man who left his wife holding down job and being the stable half of their marriage in order to go indulge in his swamp fantasies, who 'loves nature' so much he collects wild animals that are killed on the Alligator Alley in order to desecrate their corpse and strew their internal organs about in the swamp in the hope of using the blood and scent to lure his targeted panther in.... And all the while feeling superior to those whose car had accidentally slammed into the poor animals as they dashed across the highway (to which I say, at least they didn't mean to harm the raccoons and bobcat while he intentionally violates their carcasses for his own selfish reason).
This 'naturalist' was, somehow, given care of a female panther cub, and rather than putting her interests first, he endangered her life by using her as bait in his tracking of the elusive wild panther... having the gall to claim to be honored when the grown cub 'selected' him as her mate (she couldn't bloody well have selected anyone else now, could she? since he had never allowed her any contact with any other animal?).
And so Tracker, the female panther he adopted, would never even have the chance to be what she is, a wild panther. The minute he sensed that she was starting to feel at home in the swamp and feeling the call of the wild, he stopped taking her out in his 'panther tracking' and simply locks her in a cage to keep her from ever running away (only James McMullen is allowed to seek freedom. Nobody else's freedom is of any value to him... unless it serves his purpose). At the same time he's collecting her excrements for use in trying to bait the wild panther he spent the years chronicled in the book chasing after.
If you get a sense that I really dislike this author... I do. The man bills himself as a naturalist (a label most lay-people would associate with as a 'scientist'), but his writing betrays not a trace of scientific thinking and objectivity. He keeps ascribing human motive and thought onto the wild animals, making them out to be something they aren't. Here's an example:
"The Great White Eagle is in all of us, in every soul, every cell, every thought. The White Eagle is mankind's supreme spiritual victory over himself. Anyone can look at an eagle, but those who dare to look within, to probe that eagle's soul, find their own soul." (page 105)
And just what sort of a naturalist would go around trying to reproduce the effects - like walking soundlessly on the trail or better smelling animal scent, etc - by imitating the panther... knowing full well that human physique is different (we have 2 legs rather than 4 and we haven't got that smelling glad at the roof of our mouth the way cats do)? It's idiotic! And for him to claim that he has successfully walked as quietly in the woods as a panther by doing what panthers do is just preposterous. It just isn't physiologically possible. People (like Indians) who manage to duplicate the effects like walking silently in the woods do so by a different technique that suits the human body and not a big cat's.
Patently false claims and assertions abound in the book... with the author repeatedly mistaking his own ideas for facts. Reading the book and you'll find vivid narration of extreme close calls in the swamp with a bear, an alligator, and a rattlesnake... and just a few pages later he'd recall another Vietnam War episode before claiming that being in the Florida swamp is a whole lot safer because he 'has never' had to face death face on ever again. He'd talk about his early panther tracking days and how dismayed he was when he realized that he himself was stalked by this panther for hours without his ever suspecting or sensing it. That ought to have taught him that his senses are not to be trust (and that just because he can't sense the panther being there doesn't mean that it isn't there)... but it apparently doesn't. The man talks a good game about how he's learned his lessons and won't repeat them, all the while doing just that. Exactly just that.
I wouldn't be quite so hard on the book had it been classified as 'fiction' or 'fantasy', but as a non-fiction book, it stinks. It's main subject is not as advertised. Granted, it does contain some good lessons on how to survive in the wilderness (especially in the Everglade-like environment), some applied paleontology, and description of some physical features and habit of a panther. The writing, though vividly descriptive at first, suffers in the end from repeated use of perspective-free deification of the panther (what may seem a reverent for nature at first soon dissolves into nothing more than a man's obsessive need to be megalomaniacal) and flashbacks of Vietnam episodes.
The logical contradictions pile up fast and steadily so that by the final chapter I can imagine just how putrid the scent of the 'in season female panther scat' must be like just trying to finish reading this book. Instead of coming away appreciating the work of a devoted naturalist who is dedicating his life to the well being of wild animals, I feel both sick of and for McMullen. The man is seriously mentally disturbed and I feel bad for Tracker and any other animals he comes into contact with.... And his worrying tendency to exaggerate also makes it hard for me to take even the more lucid parts of his book at his words. 394 pages of that with absolutely no illustration or photo whatsoever... This book is, to put it mildly, an irritating read.
So... If you are looking for a wilderness-loving book about wild animals by a biologist, you wouldn't miss anything in skipping McMullen's Cry of the Panther.' Go ye instead for Joy Adamson's Born Free, Living Free, Forever Free, the Spotted Sphinx, Queen of Shaba, or Mark and Delia Owens' Cry of the Kalahari or Eyes of the Elephant instead. If you are looking for an excursion into the disturbing mind of a stalker who projects his own love and lust onto his prey, however.... this isn't such a bad example of it.
Cry of the Panther: Quest of a Species (James P McMullen)
Pineapple Press 1984. Paperback: ISBN: 1-56164-118-9
Thanks very much to Epinion's Book CL, Pestyside, for a very speedy addition of this entry to the database.
Smorg's review of other books: Michael J ARLEN: Passage to Ararat, Anatoli BOUKREEV: Above the Clouds, Jean CRAIGHEAD-GEORGE: My Side of the Mountain, Richard P. FEYNMAN: The Meaning of It All, Hans HOTTER: Hans Hotter: Memoirs, Lotte LEHMANN: My Many Lives, Christa LUDWIG: In My Own Voice, James MARSHALL: Walkabout, Leonard MLODINOW: Feynman's Rainbow, Birgit NILLSON: La Nilsson, Lisa RANDALL: Warped Passages, Georges RODENBACH: Bruges la Morte, Jeffrey TAYLOR: Siberian Dawn, Barbara TUCHMAN: The Guns of August, Astrid VARNAY: 55 Years in 5 Acts (Hab'mir's Gelobt), Galina VISHNEVSKAYA: Galina